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Friday, April 15, 2011

Hanna (Release Date: 4-8-2011)

        Even way back when when he only picked five movies instead of ten, Oscar has always had a tendency to select one divisive Best Picture nominee per year. I suppose no one movie truly filled in the slot this last year, but The Blind Side and The Reader served as bold, attention-grabbing choices the two years previous, folks wildly disagreeing as to their relevance and quality. Though not on the same level of opposition as either of those movies, the inclusion of Joe Wright's Atonement the year before also caused many to cry foul. While the beauty of the thing (cinematography, score, etc.) is largely undebatable, so is the notion of melodrama that runs through the movie's veins, prompting many to dismiss it as Oscar Bait as opposed to a truly heart-flet film. So goes the wrap on Wright, who's proven fully capable of massaging the eyes and ears, but might have a bit of work cut out for him where the heart is concerned. After his largely missed follow-up The Soloist, Wright returns with his first buzzed-about flick since he guided Atonement to a Best Picture nomination.

        His latest, Hanna, is the story of a sixteen-year-old girl (Saoirse Ronan) who has lived her entire life alone in an unspecified snowy woodlands with only her father (Eric Bana) for company. Under his tutelage, Hanna has learned to survive in the harsh terrain, hunting, killing, and preparing her meals, accurately firing bullets and arrows with equal aplomb. Having trained her whole life, Hanna declares to her father that she is ready to enter the civilized world, but in order to do this, she'll have to get passed Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), a cunning and cruel government agent who harbors a secret to which the titular teen is still oblivious. With the push of a button, an action-packed, globe-trotting string of events is set in motion that will forever determine the fate of the young assassin.

        One thing is for sure from the first shot of Hanna to the very last: Wright has lost absolutely none of his aesthetic touch. It wouldn't be a stretch to assume that some of the movie's global aspirations exist only so that Wright and camera man Alwin H. Kuchler can concoct a stunning, varied visual display, but it doesn't matter too much. The entirety of the movie is simply astounding to look at, frozen tundras, blindingly orange deserts, moroccan camp grounds, and german theme parks all rendered in vivid and surreal fashion, utterly transportive in nature. Also like Atonement, who only had the Best Original Score statuette to cling to at the end of Oscar night, Hanna boasts of a high-energy, pulsating, movie-defining score by The Chemical Brothers. Your previous thoughts on the band are unlikely to matter; the music here simply wills you into submission, cranking up the volume and intensity to sublime levels whenever an action scene is set to occur.

        And occur they do. Quite frequently, in fact, and though Hanna could be rightfully accused of being a bit excessive in its sheer number of such scenes, no such debate could be had about their quality. It's funny coming from a guy whose first two features were Pride and Prejudice and the aforementioned Atonement, but Hanna contains any number of fist-fights and shoot-outs that could make the likes of Michael Bay green with envy. Largely shot in single takes by roaming, tracking cameras, the mono-y-mono take-downs featured here are simply the most compelling, engrossingly, and wisely composed since the Bourne movies, a comparison that many have jumped on already. And while the two share a sense of kinetic combat, Hanna strikes me as skewing much closer to any number of over-the-top, stylized, techno-scored European action thrillers. It strays away from the realism of the Paul Greengrass/Matt Damon films and towards the brightly colored mania of something like Run, Lola, Run or The Professional.

        If it's not kind of clear by now, Hanna isn't really a movie that's about its performances, making its handful of great ones that much more to brag about. Blanchett, an actress who's wrongly viewed as being ever-serious, gets her best chance to ham it up since she played the drugged-out version of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There, cloaking her villainy in a smooth southern drawl. The supporting cast is also full of riches, Olivia Williams and Jessica Barden portraying a consciously free-spirited mother and her fast-talking, boy-crazy daughter, Tom Hollander contributing a deliciously evil sidekick for Blanchett. Bana is probably the weak link here, but that's more a product of the blandness of his character in the face of a refreshingly female-centric piece than any fault of his. In a completely predictable turn of events, Ronan once again proves herself to be among the best young actors around, up to the physical qualifications of the role at every turn, captivating the audience without ever raising her voice. Many can train their way up to being a solid and credible actor, but far fewer can claim to that mysterious and innate thing they call, 'screen presence.' Ronan has it in heaps.

        Despite the wholly different tone and content of Hanna, Wright is almost assured to be subject to some of the same criticisms that followed Atonement. While the general composition of the movie is readily admirable, its emotional content has once again taken something of a back seat. But don't let the naysayers trick you into missing out on this one: Hanna was the best two hours that I've spent in a movie theater in months, exhilarating and compelling from start to finish. Part action thriller, part fairy-tale retelling, and part coming-of-age story, its remarkable how tightly structured and composed such a mash-up of influences has become. Critics be damned: I liked Wright back in 2006, and I like him now. His movies might not make tears fall the same way as The King's Speech, but they're a hell of a lot more fun to watch, and if Hanna doesn't raise your blood-pressure, you should probably see a doctor.

Grade: A-

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